Fiction

Flight Through Solitude

HAL BORLAND February 15 1950
Fiction

Flight Through Solitude

HAL BORLAND February 15 1950

WHAT did a man do when success turned to ashes in his mouth? A man like Jeffrey Grant, who took his law degree at 22, earned his wings, was a combat pilot nearly four years, and came back to a job with Fleming, Carson, Wilhams & Fleming. A man who had just won his first big case at the age of 30, and who now was filled with world weariness.

What did such a man do, at such a time?

He had been trying to find the answer for two days and a half, ever since the beginning of the trip. After he and Andrea had lunch in Walterboro, he began to relax from sheer fatigue. Andrea saw his fingers loosen on the wheel and his shoulders settle back, and she said, “Not far now, Jeff. A good bed tonight, and a long rest ahead.”

He nodded and glanced at his wrist watch. 

Andrea laughed. “Still counting minutes. I thought we were only going to count days and weeks, this trip.”

Jeff glanced at her and smiled. “Know what I was thinking? Two and a half days, and we’ve just sat here and let the miles flow past.” 

“That’s a weird way to look at it.”

“It’s true. I just sit here and wiggle the wheel, and the road flows under and the woods and fields flow around. Pretty soon we aren’t where we were. We’re almost where we’re going to be. Time means distance, change, new surroundings, new ideas.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Remember when you were a kid? And the days were endless?”

Andrea shook her head. “I never had enough time. Not for homework, and dates, and parties.” 

“When you were a little kid. When you could dream a whole lifetime in five minutes. Or go off to Africa or Australia in one flash of imagination.” 

“I was more interested in my own town,” Andrea said. “My first beau lived there. He was 12 and had a pug nose. I was 10.”

Jeff glanced at his watch again, then lit a cigarette. Another hour and a half and Andrea’s mother would be saying, “Ann, you should have brought him home sooner. He’s thin and tired, poor boy.” She always said that, even if he was ten pounds overweight. But this time she would be right. He was thin, and he was tired. Ten months on the Chase-Martin case. After it was over, and won, old J. T. Fleming had said, “A splendid job, Grant. But you are bushed. Go away for a few weeks.”

“I thought you had orders to get away from it all,” Andrea was saying. “To take it easy.” 

Jeff laughed. “I am taking it easy, and we are getting away from it all. Didn’t I point out that I just sit here and let space flow past?”

“Must we get philosophic?” she asked. “Smell that pine air? Relax!”

Jeff yawned. “Want to take the wheel a while?” he asked.

She said yes, and he drew up and changed places with her. She waited for a truck and two cars to pass, then took after them. Jeff leaned back and closed his eyes. But he didn’t sleep.

THE summer he was 10 they went up to the place on the lake. He was a good swimmer and could handle a canoe, so he could go anywhere he pleased, if he told somebody he was going. One day he went across to Kiner’s Point, alone. It was four miles across the lake. With a tail wind he made it in less than an hour. He had a dollar in his pocket and all day ahead of him. He helped a man patch a sail, bought hot dogs and coke and ice cream, watched the little kids fish for sunnies from the dock. Then it was 3 o’clock and he started home. But the wind was still blowing, so he couldn’t make headway.

What did you do in a spot like that? You went around the edge of the lake, where there was shelter. Ten or eleven miles, that way. Dark when you got home, and the folks were frantic. Searching parties out. Motorboats probing the coves with searchlights. Everybody worried. “You were gone so long!”

But it wasn’t long. You simply paddled back from the Point, not stopping anywhere. They had kept watching the clock, and the clock said it was a long time. And they never understood.

Or take the day you met Ann. You met her, and you knew the first evening that you loved her. You had a thirty-hour leave before you had to go back to the base, and from there to England. You asked her to marry you, and she said, “But how do you know, so soon? You’ve scarcely met me!” Yet you had known her a long time. Thirty hours was forever, then. Men had loved a girl and left her with child and climbed into the air and killed and been killed in no longer a time than he had known Andrea Langley.

“So soon.” How long was time, anyway? What did it do to people?

Last week Jeffrey Grant stood in court and quoted words set down as truth and dictum by a man dead sixty years, and another man in black robes solemnly reached across the decades to lean on something called a precedent and say Jeffrey Grant was right and someone else was less right, hence wrong. What was a precedent? It was one man’s decision made sometime in the past. Was it right, or wrong? It wasn’t either, necessarily. It was one man’s version of right and justice at a given moment in time. Yet it could shape events still to come. Words out of the past, set down and remembered while time stretched across the years, had put Jeffrey Grant and his good wife, Andrea Langley Grant, in an automobile at this particular moment.

What was the answer?

Jeff opened his eyes and looked around. He stretched and glanced at his watch.

“Catch a nap?” Andrea asked.

“Umm... Pull up, will you, and let me take over. You know this road too well. I never get to see anything, this last stretch, you drive so fast."

THE Langley house was ante bellum, spacious, inconvenient, and comfortable.

Mrs. Langley affectionately scolded Andrea for letting Jeff get so thin, said they both needed sun and air and rest, and in the same breath listed four dinner parties and three afternoon gatherings arranged for them.

After dinner they sat over coffee in the drawing-room until 9.30, when Jeff fell asleep in the midst of one of Mother Langley’s genealogical accounts of a recent marriage. They sent him to bed.

Why was it that a man utterly weary could sleep like a babe in a stiff chair in a drawing-room with two voluble women talking, and be awake for hours in a comfortable bed in a room so quiet you could hear the creak of a hundred years in its beams?

When he dozed off, at last, Jeff dreamed of England; of an air base in the misty English countryside. Time was interminable, the time of waiting. Waiting. You never got used to it.

You ate and drank and slept, and you went over to where your ship stood, grey in the slowly eddying mist, and you talked to Casey who was working on one of the motors. He finished, and started the motor and revved it up, and you listened to the high-pitched, passionless bellow of the exhausts. It never screamed until it was in the air. It, too, was waiting. Then you walked back across the field with Casey and watched him start overhauling a motor on a stand. A messenger summoned you to the briefing room. Another mission.

You took off and climbed and took your place up there, remote from the earth, where there were neither hours nor minutes. Only seconds, eternities. You set your throttle and the earth turned slowly beneath you. Dark specks appeared in the sun in front of you. A few eternities passed, a few seconds. The specks spat flame. You sent flame back. Men died...

He wakened, tense and quivering, and winced as the beams creaked again. His mind knew but rejected the fact that he lay here in a bed in the peaceful house of his wife’s childhood. His mind raced on, remembering. The specks spat flame, and men died. And after more seconds you turned back and the earth spun the other way. England was beneath you and you came down on the landing strip, down to hours and minutes once more. Men had died around you, and you still lived. The wind sock still pointed northeast, Casey was still overhauling the same motor, the coffee urn still gurgled the same black, bitter, scalding brew. Men who hadn’t lived an eternity, as you had, asked, “Where? How? When?” You tried to force your mind to reconstruct the broken flashes of reality. And there was creeping time again, with no relation to the eternity you had lived.

ANDREA tiptoed in just before midnight. Jeff heard the door open. He sat up and switched on the bedside light.

“Darling!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t mean to wake you!”

“I was awake,” he said; and at the tone in his voice she came over and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“What is it, Jeff?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, Ann. I’m lost. I’ve lost—the meaning. Things have to add up.”

“And they don’t?”

“No... I am a lawyer in a world which pays lip service to law, yet lives by force. I am alive in a world which venerates the words of dead men. I have lived a lifetime in forty seconds—and I am so tired that I need a few weeks to rest up... What does it add up to?”

“Do things ever add up, completely?”

“They should.”

“But do they?”

“I have to add them up.”

She put her hand over his and held it there a moment. Then she turned out the light and began undressing. There was moonlight in the shining live oak leaves outside the south windows.

“I’m a heel,” Jeff said, still sitting up. “But not a complete heel... Will you square it with your mother, after I go?” 

“Of course.”

He bit his lip, hearing the warmth of understanding. Then she asked, “When?”

“Dawn, if I wake up.”

She came over and kissed him, and the moonlight was there in the room.

HE LEFT before six the next morning. He drove south.

There was one satisfaction. He wasn’t running away from anything or anybody. He wasn’t running away, period. Andrea was the one woman in the world for him. What other woman would have understood so completely last night? Not only last night, but all these months. This wasn’t something brand-new. He had been baffled for a long time. It merely came to a focus now, a point where he had to find the answers or settle down to a compromise. And he was a poor compromiser.

What did you look for, when you reached that point? For your lost childhood? Some men did. Tried to go back and recapture the little raptures of childhood discovery, the security of home and parents. And it was a fruitless search. Childhood was for children.

He had welcomed the adventure of growing up. Anyway, he had left his childhood. He was not seeking it now. He had been south only four times. A total of twelve days. He had flown to Florida from Africa once and from England three times, with problems. Then his problems had been placed before the Air Force Tactical Board, the big brass, the wise and knowing brass. Tactical problems, they were; and the Board had worked them out and he had flown back with the answers.

Could that be it? The answers? It seemed ridiculous.

That was the year he was 24. Twenty-four and called brilliant, a pilot with a law degree behind him. He laughed at it, then. Trained in law, due process. And living in a world where the order was knock ’em out, chop ’em to pieces, kill ’em. The only due process was a faster plane, a deadlier weapon. You didn’t argue with a 40-mm. slug. You set your own precedents, here and now.

You came back, when it was all over. You sloughed off those years, those lives you lived, those eternities. You came back to law. And the law reached back to England, back to Rome. Your inner self said you weren’t living in Rome or Gladstone’s England; you were living in the now. But you put on the law, the tradition, the precedent, the antique cloak of time and due process, as you would put on an undershirt. You wore it because it was a part of your uniform. It served a purpose. But you couldn’t find the purpose.

If you could only reach a point in time or reason, a place removed and stable and enduring, and get a perspective!

MID-MORNING, and noon, and early afternoon. He came to the orange groves, cool and mingled green and gold. The lakes brown in shadow, blue in sun, where gulls wheeled and squawked and squabbled for bits of bread a little girl scattered in the water. And the white houses of Orlando in the live oak shade.

Orange Avenue lay hot in the afternoon sun, its awninged shops strangely busy. Old men in white shirtsleeves sat in the semi-cool of the hotel lobby, waiting for dinnertime. Their wives, in printed silk, waved palm-leaf fans and watched the red-haired girl at the cigarette counter.

Jeff Grant signed the register and followed the boy with his bag to the room. It was a small room, hot from the closed-in air of the day. Even when the windows were opened, the curtains hung limp, letting in only the street noises from five stories below. He listened for the drone of planes. It was a long time before he heard a single plane, high and in the distance.

It was a strange town. He had been here before, but it was all strange now.

He took a shower and went downstairs and got in his car. It was almost five o’clock. He had to ask his way out to the air base.

He drew up at the sentry post. The young guard, who couldn’t have been a day over twenty, asked for his pass. He had none. The guard frowned and shook his head.

“I used to fly in here from England,” Jeff said. “I just wanted to see the place again.”

The guard wasn’t listening. A first lieutenant, on foot, was approaching from on the post. The guard snapped to attention and saluted.

“Any cabs around?” the lieutenant asked.

“Sorry, sir,” the guard said. “Hasn’t been one since four o’clock.”

“Going to town?” Jeff asked.

Then the lieutenant noticed him. “Yes. I’d sure appreciate a lift.”

“I’d like to take a turn around the base before we go,” Jeff said.

The lieutenant hesitated.

“I was down here during the war,” Jeff went on. “Happened to be in town, and came out to see it again. But I haven’t any pass.”

“Your name?” the lieutenant asked. “Grant. Jeffrey Grant.”

It meant nothing to the lieutenant. “Any identification?”

Jeff went through his wallet. Driver’s license. Club card. At last he found a dog-eared identification card, dated 1943, with his picture and thumbprint. The lieutenant looked at it, stepped into the sentry booth, signed a pass. Then he got in beside Jeff.

“Straight ahead, Major,” he said. “Remember your way around?”

Jeff soon found that he didn’t. The roads seemed to have been moved, the landmarks taken down. The buildings looked drab. The officers’ club, beside the little lake, was clean and clipped, but only three cars were parked there. They passed the old Bachelor Officers quarters before Jeff recognized them. Then they were back on the main street, with the gate ahead.

“Look familiar to you?” the lieutenant asked.

Jeff nodded. It didn’t look familiar at all. It, too, was a strange place. Time lay upon it like a blanket. And he was outside the blanket.

THEY DROVE back to town, the lieutenant talking and Jeff saying yes and no but not listening. The man had nothing to say. Nothing at all. Jeff let him off at a long, low double house where a tired girl with a baby in her arms waited in the doorway.

He drove back to Orange Avenue and parked his car and went into Mack’s restaurant. It seemed small and quiet. A tall girl in a white dress took him to a little table against the wall. Before he studied the menu he looked around. There were only two uniforms in the whole place. This wasn’t Mack’s. Mack’s was always full of uniforms. Full of noise, life, laughter.

A waitress came to take his order. While she wrote it down he tried to place her. Something about her face—no, it couldn’t be. That girl had been young.

He looked again when she brought his food. He asked, “Were you here during the war?”

She looked at him with tired eyes. “I’ve been here forever,” she said wearily. “Coffee now, or later?”

“Iced coffee, now... Are you Edna, or Marie, or who?”

“Marie,” she said.

“I used to be out at the air base. Do you ever see any of the old crowd from out there?”

“One man came in here crying drunk last winter. We had quite a time with him.

She went to get his coffee. When she came back she said, “Why should anybody come back if he doesn’t have to? ...Dessert?”

“No.” He was thinking how old she was, and how young she had been. So little of life had left so bitter a mark upon her.

When he had eaten he went down to the lake with the bandstand and sat on the grass while the dusk deepened. A radio began to blare in a house somewhere in the darkness behind him. He watched a breeze creep across the lake, ruffling the shallow water. Perhaps in another half hour it would reach up and rustle the curtains in a hot little fifth-floor room and some of the trapped heat of the day would vanish.

He got up and slowly climbed the hill toward the hotel.

THE NEXT morning he drove east. East through the pinelands to the coastal marshes with their primitive odor of salt and fish and muckland. Just outside Indian River City he drew up for a Negro boy who was hitchhiking. The boy got in and sat gingerly on the edge of the seat.

“Where are you going?” Jeff asked. “New Sumerna,” the boy said.

“You live there?”

“I’m going to get a job there.” 

“Doing what?”

“Fishing. Don’t you know about the fishing boats at New Sumerna?”

“I’ve heard of them. Your father a fisherman?”

“My father’s dead. A cotton-mouth done him in.” It was a factual, unemotional statement.

“When was this?”

“Day afore yesterday.”

It was several minutes before Jeff asked, “And your mother?”

“She died two years ago.”

Jeff waited again before he asked, “How old are you?”

“Twelve,” the boy said.

They lapsed into silence. The boy had nothing more to say. He had said it all. Life, and death, and survival. What more was there?

When Jeff let him out in New Smyrna the boy thanked him and walked away, looking around him. It was a strange town, but he was no stranger there. And Jeff envied him.

In early afternoon he came to Daytona, turned at a cross-street, passed the water-front park and crossed the bridge to the peninsula and the beachfront. He was hungry. He stopped at a little place with a shrimp sign, a pinball machine and a counter.

A girl not more than seventeen was behind the counter, and a man in a white T-shirt was at the grill frying bacon. Jeff ordered shrimp and French fries. The man scooped shrimp into one wire basket, potatoes into another, and set them in the kettle of hot oil. The oil spattered and the man winced, slapped his right arm, rubbed it, held it to the light. Jeff saw the blue outlines of tattooed air corps wings on the arm. The man felt Jeff watching him. He grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

“Flack,” he said with a grimace. “I call it flack, when it spatters that way.” The girl giggled.

“She never heard the word,” the man said. He scooped up the shrimp and potatoes, arranged them on a platter. The girl set them in front of Jeff.

“There ain’t no such word, is there?” she asked. “He just made it up.” 

“Yeah,” the man said with a wink. “I dreamed it. Right?”

“I dream that word sometimes, too.” Jeff said.

“Long time ago, ain’t it?” the man said. Then, shaking his head, “She never heard it.” He made himself a bacon sandwich.

IT WAS four o’clock when he left Daytona. The miles flowed past and he came to a place where the ocean was close on his right, the dunes on his left, not a house in sight. Jeff stopped and found a sheltered spot in the dry sand and sat down. He closed his eyes and listened to the slow roar, the endless surge and flow of the waves. He tried to count the surges, to time them; but the beat was irregular within its own rhythm. It was like trying to time the wind in your face. It was time, beating, beating, missing a beat, then beating again.

Rain wakened him, rain on his face. It was early dusk. He hurried to the car. The rain increased and the wind rose with it. As he drove on north, great splashes of spray slapped the windshield.

Then the road turned inland. He had only the rain to face, and the headlights bored a tunnel through the darkness. At last the flashing beam of a lighthouse cut the darkness. He passed a small settlement, came to a bridge, and the lights of St. Augustine were ahead, just across Matanzas Bay.

He tried three hotels before he found a room. Once there, he was too weary to go downstairs again for food. He lay down and slept.

IT WAS midmorning when he awakened, the dazzle of sun in his eyes. He bathed and shaved and dressed. Then he went downstairs.

Across the street was a grassy park where the weathered brown-stone walls of the old Spanish fort stood bastioned against the sky. Fort San Marcos. He stared at the walls a moment. An old place. That was all. Old.

He climbed the stairs to the roof, where squat muzzle-loaders once lobbed iron balls out across Matanzas Bay. He went to a parapet. There was nothing to see. The moat, with a school of lazy fish in the shadowed water. Grass. A few twisted trees. The old town dozing in the sun.

He found a ledge and sat down. He closed his eyes, and he seemed to hear the surge and flow of the waves he had heard the afternoon before. Had he thought, or had he dreamed, that it was the surge and flow of time, beating, beating, missing a beat, beating?

A woman, obviously a schoolteacher, was saying to her companion, “The Spanish came in 1565 and held St. Augustine till 1760. Then the English... the Spanish again... the Americans...

Jeff got up and moved. He went to one of the corner sentry boxes. He had to stoop to look through its porthole. As he turned away he barked his knuckle on the stone wall. Rough, sharp stone, a conglomerate of little seashells. Coquina rock, they called it.

He went across and sat down again on the low ledge. The whole fort was made of coquina rock. Shells heaped on the ocean bed and cemented together, through the centuries, by lime leached out of them by the sea water. You could quarry it with a spade and an axe, it was that soft. But when it stood in the sun it hardened. The shells in it weren’t any bigger than a fingernail. They were so fragile you could crush them between your fingers. Yet coquina rock, the sum of those fragile shells, made walls strong enough to endure for centuries.

He heard the drone of an airplane high overhead, faint as a mosquito buzz. It didn’t make sense, airplanes and coquina rock. The centuries, the aeons, shouldn’t be spanned that way. But there they were. Time, beating like waves, beating, and missing a beat, and beating again. Men themselves spanned the centuries.

Here he was, he who had lived eternities while the clock ticked seconds, come here to stand in the footprints of a man unknown and forgotten. A man who lived and loved and searched his soul, and who died and was forgotten. Forgotten by name, perhaps. But weren’t men, all men, slowly forming the rock of human experience as the years washed over them, the centuries, the millennia, leaching the lime of continuity from each life’s little shell?

Last week he had quoted the words of a dead man to a living judge who reached out across the years to grasp those words and find meaning and reason in them. A mortal man lived and thought and spoke and died. And he left the substance of truth behind him.

What was law but the sum of human experience? Call it order, if you preferred. Call it government, or the code man lived by. Admit that it was devious, at times; it was misshapen and abused. It was even thrust aside, scorned, ignored, when time skipped a beat and force made men blind. But time resumed its beat, and men came back to the conglomerate rock of experience. For in it was the substance of man’s being, the continuity, the sum of his years and his generations. It was order, and truth, and meaning. The rock...

The schoolteacher and her companion went away to find another fragment of history. A boy and a girl came, hand in hand, and stared unseeing from the parapet and forgot that Jeff was there and kissed each other. The sun was overhead. It was noon. And Savannah was a hundred and eighty miles away. Jeff went to his hotel to check out and get his car.

HE telephoned from Jacksonville. Andrea came to the phone. 

“Jeff!” she exclaimed. “Jeff, where are you?”

He told her, and he said, “I’ll be home for dinner.”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m okay, darling. Right as rain.” 

He heard her breath of relief just before he put up the receiver.